If you’re used to basic seasonings, cooking with fresh herbs and spices can be a revelation. It can also be a little intimidating. While browsing the stalls at your local farmers market, you can find dozens, if not hundreds, of different kinds of herbs: basil and oregano, parsley and thyme, rosemary, lemongrass, and so many more. You pick up a bundle of fragrant green leaves, and sure, it smells great, but what exactly do you do with it? Which herbs go in which kinds of recipes? And how do you prepare them? With this guide, you’ll be whipping up flavorful meals full of herbs and spices in no time.
The F.N. Sharp Guide to Cooking with Herbs and Spices
Depending on the cuisines you favor, you may be familiar with some types of herbs and spices already. Oregano and basil are common ingredients in both Greek and Italian recipes, cilantro is a must in many Mexican dishes, and it’s hard to imagine Thai food without lemongrass.
But beyond these regional cuisines is a whole world of herbs and spices that can perk up everything from scrambled eggs to desserts! By learning to select, prepare, and store fresh herbs and spices, you can feel free to experiment with different flavor profiles that jars of dried herbs just can’t match – and if you become familiar with the basic elements of cooking, you’ll be cooking like the pros in no time!
The Ultimate List of Commonly Used Herbs and Spices
Here’s a list of herbs and spices that are commonly available fresh at most farmers markets and grocery stores. Pick up a bunch or two and start experimenting!
There are many different varieties of basil, ranging from the commonly available lemon basil, which mingles citrusy notes with basil’s usual minty, peppery taste, to the downright outlandish chocolate basil, which – you guessed it – tastes like a basil/chocolate combo. A standard sweet basil is usually a good variety to start with. Only the leaves are used in cooking, although an experiment conducted by Cook’s Illustrated suggests young basil stems can be used, as well.
Chives are related to onions, which explains their light, oniony taste. It makes a simple and tasty garnish on baked potatoes, cream soups, and other heavy dishes that might need a some lightening up. Make sure your chives are very fresh; the tender stems wilt quickly if stored improperly. The entire chive plant is edible, as well.
People tend to have strong feelings about cilantro, which has a lot to do with how they perceive the taste. While some people find it bright and citrusy, others find the taste soapy, or even dirt-like! The entire cilantro plant – stems and leaves both – can be used in recipes. Cilantro produces tiny round seed pods known as coriander, a spice frequently used in Indian and Middle Eastern dishes. Both the leaves and upper part of them stems can be used for cooking.
If you’ve ever had a dill pickle, you know the distinctive taste of this feathery herb. In addition to pickles, though, it has a broad range of applications in many different dishes. For example, in Scandinavian cooking, it is a frequent complement to fish. Try pairing it with chicken, adding to tuna salad, or blending with soft cheese for a tasty spread. Though the stems and even blossom heads of dill may be used to flavor pickles, use only the leafy fronds for cooking since they’re much more tender.
Most common in Asian cuisine, lemongrass may seem a bit puzzling initially as it looks nothing at all like the others on this list of herbs and spices. A thick, grass-like stalk rises from a pale bulb at the base. After removing the outer leaves and the bulb, you’re left with a tender inner stalk with a bright flavor reminiscent of lemon, though a bit more spicy and herbal. It’s a natural complement to other common Asian spices like ginger, curry, and hot peppers.
There are many types of mint. Like basil, there are designer varieties, but most people are more familiar with spearmint and peppermint. While spearmint has a sweet, light, minty flavor, peppermint is a bit bolder with that familiar cooling sensation caused by the menthol the plant produces in its leaves. The mint you use is up to you; try it as a seasoning on lamb, in cocktails (hello Mojito!), and, of course, in minty-fresh desserts. It plays particularly well with chocolate. Both the leaves and stems can be used in cooking.
A common herb in Italian-American cooking, oregano’s peppery, earthy flavor also plays well with egg dishes and poultry. A closely related herb, marjoram, has a similar appearance and flavor, though some people find its taste somewhat sweeter. For both these herbs, strip the small leaves from the woody stems before adding them to your dishes.
Parsley adds a powerful punch of flavor to even the most commonplace recipes. It comes in two varieties: curly and flat-leafed (or Italian). The flat-leaf variety, which is sometimes confused with cilantro, is more tender and slightly brighter in flavor than its curly-leafed cousin. Chop both varieties, stem and all, to add to pastas, soups, baked potatoes, and even salads.
Rosemary is an evergreen shrub originally native to the Mediterranean, though it’s now grown all over the world. Its leaves look like fleshy needles, and its stems are hard and woody. Rosemary has a strong and distinctive piney taste that pairs well with poultry, lamb and pork. Just keep in mind a little tends to go a long way and it can easily overpower more delicate flavors. Only the leaves (fleshy needles) are used in cooking.
Commonly used to flavor sausage, poultry, and dishes heavy in cream or butter, the earthy taste of sage tends to round out the fattiness of these foods and provide a subtle contrast. The pale, silvery-green leaves are slightly hairy in texture. Pluck the leaves from the woody stems before chopping them to use in cooking.
Commonly used in French cooking, tarragon has a licorice-like flavor reminiscent of anise or fennel. It plays well with egg dishes and is a traditional ingredient in béarnaise sauce, a buttery sauce thickened with egg-yolks and flavored with herbs. The leaves are used in cooking.
Another herb commonly used with poultry, thyme’s tiny leaves mean there’s no chopping required. Simply strip them from the tough, woody stems using your fingers and add them to your dish. The earthy, somewhat lemony flavor of thyme plays well with savory dishes, but also adds depth to sweeter flavors such as fruit. It also adds another layer of flavor to tuna salad.
How to Choose Fresh Herbs and Spices
When it comes to herbs and spices, fresher is almost always better. Many herbs can be grown at home in small windowsill pots, which is why creating a kitchen herb garden is a great idea for home cooks. If you don’t have the space (or a green thumb) your next best bet will be to check your local farmers market or produce stand for fresh cut herbs. Look for rich green leaves that are firm rather than wilted – just as with cut flowers, this means they’ve been cut recently and well cared for in transit.
How to Mince Fresh Herbs and Spices
Learning how to mince fresh herbs may seem intimidating, but it’s an easy skill to master. First, swirl your herbs through cold water to remove any dirt or debris. If they’re tied in a bundle, remove the tie so all stems can be washed. Lay the washed herbs on a kitchen towel and pat them dry. Wet herbs will stick to your knife and make mincing more difficult, so be sure to dry those babies well! Also be sure to use a clean, dry cutting board and an appropriate knife – the chef’s knife, Santoku knife, or utility knife are all good options.
For herbs that can be chopped stem and all, like parsley and cilantro, first remove the bottom portion of the stems, then pile the herbs on your board and chop roughly. Use a board scraper or the spine of your knife to gather the herbs back into piles as your chopping spreads them out. Once the herbs are roughly chopped, use the “hinge” technique to refine them: place your guide hand on the tip of your knife so that it acts as a pivot point, then use a rocking motion to work through the piled herbs on your board until they are finely chopped.
Large-leaved herbs that must be removed from the stem before cutting, such as basil, mint, and sage, should be cut using the chiffonade technique. Chiffonade comes from a French word meaning “in rags,” and refers to the process of cutting these leaves into thin strips.
To achieve these delicate ribbons of green, stack your leaves and roll them into a tight bundle and use the back-slice technique to cut thin slices of the bundle. If you’re unfamiliar with the back-slice technique, you’ll need to place the tip of your knife against your cutting board and draw it backward, toward you, without pushing down – there’s no rocking motion at all. This is what produces the fine, narrow ribbons of herbs that are perfect for adding as a last-minute garnish.
If you only have a few herbs to chop and don’t need a particularly fine cut, use a pair of kitchen shears to cut them up. This is especially handy for chives since they’re so fragile that even sharp knives can mush them up as you chop.
How to Store Fresh Herbs and Spices
When cooking with fresh herbs and spices, it’s important to know how to store them properly so you’re not constantly tossing out the leftovers. The best way to keep them fresh is to store them in the refrigerator, upright in a jar or glass of water.
Before storing your herbs, cut about half an inch off the bottom of the stems, and remove any lower leaves that would sit in the water. Add enough water to the jar to cover the bottom inch or so of the stems, then loosely cover the leaves with a plastic bag to keep them from absorbing odors in the fridge.
Change the water daily, cutting off another half inch of stem each time you do so, and remove any wilted or browning leaves or stems.
Using the Right Tools
When it comes to cooking with fresh herbs and spices, you definitely need a set of sharp knives on hand. Whether you’re using a chef’s knife or the Santoku knife for large bunches of herbs, or a straight-edged utility knife for smaller herbs, a dull knife can destroy these delicate ingredients. A blunt blade bruises the tender leaves, taking away the vibrant green color and flavor, plus you’ll end up with very inconsistent cuts, turning what should be a nice garnish into a pile of mush.
You should never use a serrated blade either – the serrations will tear the herbs and cause just as much damage as a dull, straight-edged blade. If you’re not sure if your knives are sharp enough to handle these delicate ingredients, then check out our tips for telling the difference between a dull knife vs. a sharp knife.
And if you want to make sure your knives are always sharp enough to cook with fresh herbs and spices, then get F.N. Sharp! Our kitchen knives are crafted from 67 layers of Damascus steel to reveal an exceptionally sharp, long-lasting edge so you can spend more time cooking and less time sharpening!